Mythbusters: The use of wooden stills in the steam era

Mythbusters: The use of wooden stills in the steam era

A confluence of technologies in the early 19th century presented new opportunities for innovative spirits producers

Mythbusters | 05 May 2023 | Issue 191 | By Chris Middleton

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By the early 19th century, the introduction of increasingly restrictive manufacturing regulations, access to resources, and the engineering of sequential compartments for distillation reshaped the distilling industry, as steam boilers permitted continuous closed systems that revolutionised production efficiencies, leading to higher volumes.


After their country won the War of Independence in 1783, American distillers lost access to cheap copper globally controlled by the British from their English and Welsh mines. Not until 1845 did America’s copper-smelting industry commence in Michigan. By replacing copper with wooden vessels in the mid-1780s, Daniel Latham of Philadelphia was one of the first to employ steam distillation. The first patent for a single-chamber vessel was issued to Alexander Anderson of Philadelphia in 1794, leading to his 1818 continuous semi-closed system through wooden vessels with copper piping and worm. Slowly, other distillers used wood and steam: from Barnum & Brooks’ patent of 1808 to Jacob Weitzel in 1836, who combined German ideas with American practices to register the first doubler design. With steam came the discovery of distilling compartments to progressively purify the distillate to proof spirit, leading to triple-chambered wooden stills connected to doublers. Ideal for distilling on the grain with sticky rye and gelatinous corn mashes, these wooden steam stills became de rigueur throughout North America until after Prohibition, when the copper beer columns with doublers completely replaced the wooden chambered charger stills.


By 1870, the American steam still was so pervasive the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) reported most whisky made in Kentucky was distilled on wooden stills: “sour mash or sweet, log copper method”. Log still was an interchangeable term with a separate configuration for actual log stills. In remote hinterlands, horizontal hardwood tree trunks were split in two, hollowed out into three chambers, and hopped together, while interconnecting copper pipes supplied boiler steam. Robert Gillespie of Pennsylvania registered a perpetual Columbian Independent Log Still in 1810. In 1816, whether by cask, tub, wooden chamber, or log, the US Treasury recorded 650 boiler distilleries. Canada also embraced wooden stills, passing the 1819 Wood Still Act.


Mashing sticky rye and corn, early Canadian distillers installed wooden stills, often sourced from Cincinnati, as the city was a hub for still fabrication and trading whisky. Canada’s leading distilleries all installed wooden stills. Samuel Morewood noted in 1838, “Canadian distilleries mostly made of wood”, from the Humber distillery near Toronto in the 1820s to Hiram Walker in 1856, and Gooderham and Worts’ upgraded distillery of 1861.


Steam distillation in wooden pot stills had limited usage in Scotland and Ireland, preferably for rectification. The British opinion on these stills was decidedly unfavourable. Wood stills continued in Scandinavia and parts of Germany and remained popular in parts of Russia until the 20th century. A notable Scottish example was Richard Shand’s patented apparatus, an interconnected series of wooden retorts used by Gilcomston, Fettercairn, and Glenmurray distilleries from 1829 to the 1840s. Shand’s plan became popular for Jamaican rum distilling, with the double retort system as their hallmark format. The metamorphosis to run continuous, high-proof distillation was wood dependent. Robert Stein’s 1828 continuous patent employed a horizontal still encased by thick wood with eight compartments where a shower or mist of wash was pumped in by piston to distil fractionally by steam. In 1832, Aeneas Coffey patented the continuous still using two vertical stills encased in six inches of wood with copper lining.


Wooden-framed Coffey stills dominated whisky production volumes until after the Second World War, superseded by stainless steel fabrications. The last continuous wooden stills making whisky, a renovated pair of 1902 Coffey stills, operated until the 1990s in South Australia. 

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